What was the capital of Latvia again? And the French word for “main course”? And what do you call the guy who carries a golf player’s golf clubs and bag? Can’t remember? Well, this does not mean that you have a bad memory. Human memory is complex and it deals with our world surprisingly well, even if we think it is poor.
On his blog psychologist Jeremy Dean outlines some characteristics of our memory that maybe make us revise our idea of having a poor memory. When we are unable to recall something, it does not mean that it is gone, it just means that you do not have access to it at the moment. This means that even when you think you have lost a memory it will still be there and with the right trigger you will be able to recall it. You just need a certain cue. The context in which you learned what you are trying to recall might help. It will be easier to re-learn information you once learned than information that is completely new to you, even if the memory is hard to recall.
Moreover, forgetting is not such a bad thing. Forgetting is actually an integral part of an efficient memory. If we were able to recall everything we had ever learned it would make the process inefficient. A nice example is when trying to recall where you parked your car. Imagine you would recall all the places in which you ever parked it. On the other hand, when we manage to recall memories we should also be aware of the fact recall changes the memory and that recall is not really recall, but rather reconstruction. In an earlier post we learned that it is even possible to implant false memories. Therefore we should not trust our own memories too much.
Moreover, we are not good at assessing our own memory. We overestimate to what extent we will in the future be able to recall things we know or that come to our mind at the moment. Even if the content is very obvious and we believe we will not forget it, it is likely that we will. Just remember a situation in which you put something, e.g. your key, in a place that made absolute sense and then you could not find it any more later on. Thus, if there is something we definitely want to remember, we better write it down right away. Or we use the effortful way of learning it. The more effortful learning, the more effective it will be. Things that are easy to recall are not learnt well; we only learn when we have to work hard to recall something. Learning also depends on context, thus in order to get the learned content independent of context, we have to learn material in different contexts (e.g. in our study, outside, etc.) or we have to make sure to be in the same context in which we learned the material when we want to recall it.
By the way, the capital of Latvia is Riga, French for “main course” is “plat principal”, and the guy with the golf bag is a caddy.